Los Angeles

Stephen Prina

In Excerpts from the 9 Symphonies of L. van Beethoven, Für zwei Pianoforte zu vier Händen, Transcription pour Piano à 2 mains, and Für Klavier zu 4 Händen, 1983–85, Stephen Prina continues an investigation into the representation of cultural artifacts. Underlying this investigation are the questions of what constitutes “completeness,” and what is the point at which completeness is exhausted. To explore these questions, Prina in effect produces a palimpsest of the original, often by the manipulation of secondary sources.

The piece is an arrangement of Beethoven's nine symphonies using versions by four 19th-century arrangers. Lorna Eder and Gaylord Mowrey performed the West Coast premiere of the piece as part of the “Striking Distance” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Prina juxtaposes four lyric transcriptions for solo piano by Franz Liszt with pedagogical reductions for piano, four hands, and two pianos, four hands, made by Ernst Naumann, Otto Singer, and Hugo Ulrich. One-ninth of each symphony is excerpted in consecutive order, so that we hear the first ninth of the first symphony, the second ninth of the second symphony, and so on. Prina’s arrangement functions at the margin of complete erasure (rather than as a deconstruction) by substituting all tempo and dynamic markings—in effect, leveling the musical expressiveness—with instructions that call for opening as softly and slowly as possible, rising to a crescendo at midpoint, then gradually playing progressively softer. This overlay ignores the original separation of movements, as well as any separation between symphonies. The arrangement is performed continuously for an approximate duration of 100 minutes.

In legend, the number nine was considered sacred by later symphonists, such as Bruckner and Mahler, who believed Beethoven had made it a measure of completeness and finality. It remains a measure of completeness, as Beethoven’s symphonic cycle is routinely programmed by orchestras, as well as boxed together on recordings. It is this representation of the symphonies as something complete that has attracted Prina. He had already approached this subject in an arrangement of the Glenn Gould recording Arnold Schoenberg: The Complete Music For Solo Piano. Though Beethoven’s music has been subject to fragmentation by other composers, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel, Prina has not concerned himself with fragmentation per se, nor with an esthetic rendering of the music, but with the structural and rhetorical relationship of the part to the whole.

Ultimately, the piece is located in its performance. The pianists are situated as arbitrators between Prina’s detached score and the classical tradition of piano-playing that they bring to it. In performance, the very slow outer segments manifest the uninflected manner suggested by the score, while the accelerated solo passages of the fourth and sixth symphonies, for example, involuntarily resist it. The latter passage, occurring at the apex of the piece, and already subject to Liszt’s pianistic display, becomes, in fact, an overt resistance approaching musical hysteria. This inevitable distortion of information experienced in the formal manner of a traditional concert is consistent with Prina’s desire to accommodate a complete work, a new representation. His creation of an original, 150-page piano score—entirely handcopied—elaborates this completeness. The music itself is a compendium of the work of the eight artists involved—including Franz Liszt, Otto Singer, the two performers, and Prina himself—involved in a cycle of creation, variation, and performance. Liszt wrote in the preface to his 1865 edition of the complete transcriptions, reprinted in the brochure: “[Beethoven’s symphonies] cannot be too intimately known or too carefully studied by all those seeking knowledge and desiring to compose. Hence every means of reproducing them and making them more popular is a valuable service to mankind.”

Robert Dean